Let's Eat

Plant power

Could a plant-based diet improve your health? Alexander Gershberg, author of new cookbook Plantbased, wants the whole world to ditch meat


Former dancer turned chef Alexander Gershberg believes in the power of food. He says a change in his diet healed a chronic skin condition that multiple doctors using traditional medicine had failed to cure.

“I was amazed it took only one week of eating a healthy, wholefoods, plant-based diet for my skin condition to vanish,” says Gershberg, who has written a cookbook, Plantbased, which will be published in English this week.

Gershberg was born in Russia and grew up in Israel, but has been based in Amsterdam since moving there in 2006 to study for a degree in modern dance at its School of Performing Arts.

“When I finished in the army, I decided what I wanted to do with my life was to become a dancer,” he explains, and after a period at a dance school in Be’er Sheva he moved to The Netherlands. In the second year of his degree that he started to suffer from a skin condition on his legs.

“For a long time, I couldn’t cure it. I went to doctors in Israel and the Netherlands, and I took a lot of different medicines. It just became worse. I felt weaker and weaker and I was very tired from all the medicines.”

Although he was sceptical, he consulted a classmate about her macrobiotic diet. “I was desperate so I asked if she would advise me how to change my diet to see if it would help me.”

Macrobiotics focuses on organic, locally grown and seasonal produce and it excludes animal products. Gershberg followed her advice and totally overhauled his way of eating. “I was already vegetarian but ate a lot of junk food — processed foods, sugar and dairy. I stopped eating dairy and sugar — the main changes — and started eating wholegrains and vegetables. The skin sickness went away and, in general, I started to feel more energised. I was in a better mood. I became more flexible as a dancer and stronger. I was amazed that I’d found something that worked!”

The transformation led him to research macrobiotic principles and wholefoods. “I started to read about the macrobiotic diet, and scientific sources on a wholefood/plant-based diet. I realised it can be very healing. That you can prevent many sicknesses to a large degree — although not 100 percent — and in general feel more energised.”

So converted was he by his change of diet he decided to spread the word. “I was feeling better by the day. I was dancing and performing better and had more energy. I thought people should know about it.”

Back then (2008) he recalls, there was less information about plant-based eating generally and macrobiotic foods were far from aspirational. “Macrobiotic cuisine back then was often terrible, and the movement had bad associations from the 1960s when it was seen as a bit cultish.” Hie wanted to convince people around him how tasty, indulgent and attractive this way of eating could be.

“The best way to share it was to cook good food for people around me.” His starting point was to look to colourful cuisines. “Wholegrains, fruits and vegetables form the basis of so many traditional cuisines around the world — of Asian, Middle Eastern and South American diets. You can take grains, beans and vegetables and do much wonderful stuff with it.”

The natural place for him to look was the food he had grown up with. Although his mother and grandmother (who, he says, were both great cooks) had served up Russian food with Ashkenazi influences at home in Russia, once they got to Israel, that started to blend with the influences of other immigrants around them. “My mother started to make couscous or use local vegetables. We ate a lot of Yemeni and Moroccan Jewish food.”

This and the general food culture in Israel provided much inspiration. “In Israel they do so many wonderful things with vegetables, with grains and with beans.” He says he was also fascinated by Japanese Shojin ryori, the traditional temple cuisine, which also avoids meat and fish.

He created recipes blending these backgrounds and would invite friends over to taste these creations. “Some things they liked and others they said were horrible and made fun of me for many years. A carrot cake, for example, that was perfectly wet inside and perfectly black and burned on the outside.”

As more people tasted his food, the word spread. He collaborated with a friend to create a vegan pop-up, which led to monthly supper club, Vegan Sundays. “We advertised it with posters of us naked with vegetables covering our private parts” he laughs.

He moved into doing private catering work and people started asking him to teach them how to cook his style of food. “No one then was doing wholefoods cuisine with Israeli and Japanese recipes. It was new.” He started giving cooking classes, which led to his first cookbook.

“By coincidence a literary agent came to one of my pop-ups about eight years ago that I did with a Cuban American chef. He asked if I wanted to write a book in Dutch.” Vegan for Friends was published in 2017 after which his plant-based cooking career really took off with more demand for classes and catering.

Plantbased is packed with tips on how to prepare meatless meals from any kitchen. Gershberg describes his tiny kitchen and hopes to persuade his readers they can cook anything they want from whatever sized facility they have. He believes expanding your recipe repertoire is key.

“If you know 10 or 20 easy-to-make, delicious recipes you are more likely to continue to eat this way and to learn how to eat more. He hopes his book will help people make this transition to plant-based cuisine or to find tastier foods. “The tastier the food you eat the more likely you are to sustain this healthier way of eating.”

Recipes adapted from ‘Plantbased: 80 Nourishing, Umami-rich Recipes from the Kitchen of a Passionate Chef’ will be published on February 2 by Smith Street Books

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